SBD/October 16, 2012/Leagues and Governing Bodies

NHL Lockout, Day 31: League Hires Top GOP Strategist To Conduct Focus Group

As the NHL lockout reaches into its second month, the league has "turned to the experts on shaping public debate: Luntz Global," according to Barry Petchesky of DEADSPIN.com. Luntz Global is a market research firm founded by Frank Luntz, "one of the Republican Party's chief strategists" who has worked with the UFC and NFL in the past.  Last Friday in Bethesda, Md., Luntz greeted the 30 attendees "who had been gathered to discuss how the NHL can better present its case." One participant of the "secret emergency PR focus group ... shared the documents" from the meeting, in which Luntz "tested pro-ownership messages" on the audience of hockey fans. The participant "gleaned the phrases and concepts the NHL might use going forward." The league is "eager to portray individual players as not in step with the union, claiming the majority of them don't believe or don't buy into the rhetoric" used by NHLPA Exec Dir Donald Fehr.  Petchesky: "You're going to hear a lot about 'shared sacrifice' from the NHL in the days and weeks to come." After being "asked to rate how sympathetic they were to owners vs. players, the participants were given a packet to complete." It was "clear that the group did not have a favorable impression" of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly "tested much better," as he was "seen as more 'blue collar.'" There is "almost no sympathy for Bettman and the owners for promulgating their third lockout in 18 years." That is a "perception they're desperate to change" (DEADSPIN.com, 10/15). In N.Y., Jeff Klein noted Luntz "posted a message on Twitter on Friday night looking for fans in New York to participate in a focus group next week" (NYTIMES.com, 10/15). Luntz said, "The research was no different from what I and others in my field have done for sports teams, sports leagues, and players' unions for many, many years" (CP, 10/15). Luntz Global "apparently intended to conduct another focus group Oct. 19," but the survey for that "has since been removed" (LATIMES.com, 10/15).

SAVING FACE: In L.A., Helene Elliott wrote the Deadspin report is "fascinating and frightening at the same time." Elliott: "Apparently the league is concerned that it has been losing the public relations battle and it's eager to position itself as sympathetic and willing to make sacrifices and position the players as divided and led by uncompromising executives such as Donald Fehr." The study's finding that Daly "is perceived in a far more positive light than Bettman is viewed explains why Daly has been the league's spokesman for much of the process" (LATIMES.com, 10/15). YAHOO SPORTS' Greg Wyshynski wrote, "I actually read it as a positive sign that we're going to get meaningful talks on the big issues soon, as the NHL is attempting to ascertain how public opinion could weight on the players depending on the timing or contents of a League offer." Wyshynski: "Clearly, the NHL still feels like there's a chance to break the union by playing up a schism between the players and Fehr" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 10/15). The GLOBE & MAIL’s Sean Gordon writes some of Luntz’ focus group conclusions “are more obvious than others.” The Deadspin report indicates that “attendees broadly had a higher opinion of the owners than they did of the players at the end of the exercise.” Gordon: “Interesting that the league would go to such lengths to try and craft their spin” (GLOBE & MAIL, 10/16).

UNFORTUNATE IMAGE CHOICE: DEADSPIN's Petchesky noted one of the questions in the focus group was, "Which of the following images make you miss hockey the most?" Sample images included a fight involving the late Derek Boogaard (DEADSPIN.com, 10/15). YAHOO SPORTS' Wyshynski wrote, "Perhaps, next time, the Luntz Group can find a fighting photo that doesn't feature a dead player" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 10/15). CBSSPORTS.com's Brian Stubits wrote the Boogaard "gaffe" is "just an awful oversight." The "irony is the damage that it does to the NHL's public relations perception when the entire goal of the focus group is to improve its public relations perception." The "real revelation is the NHL might be sweating it out a bit right now." Stubits: "I would be surprised if the NHLPA has not conducted one of its own." But that the league "hired the biggest name in the business and essentially did it like a shotgun wedding must say something." The "tenor of the questions makes you wonder, too" (CBSSPORTS.com, 10/15).
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